Treasure Hunting Part 2: Sir Alexander Cadogan as Curmudgeonly Ballet Superfan
It is hard to imagine Sir Alexander Cadogan (seen above at the United Nations, 1948, ACAD 1/19) related to the Russian enthusiasts of the mid-19th century who, as recounted by Walter Sorell, cooked, and ate Marie Taglioni’s ballet slippers at a sumptuous dinner. Deeply respected for his calm balanced diplomatic skill, he was a crucial influencer in the major events that led up to and shaped the post Second World War world. He was British General Secretary to the League of Nations in the 1920s and British representative in China in the 1930s. During the Second World War he was the indispensable leader of the Foreign Office. His laconic voice-of-reason approach helped lend balance to Churchill’s roving genius. Immediately post-war, he was made permanent UK representative at the fledgling United Nations in New York.
Despite the seriousness of his responsibilities and reserved character, his diaries from his time in New York show a marked flowering of interest in the work of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the charged atmosphere of their sold-out North American tour in 1949.
Held at the Churchill Archives Centre (ACAD 1) these diaries have survived and were maintained by him almost daily from 1933 to his death in 1968. His diaries present him as forthright and acutely insightful but also chronically waspish, especially about what he saw as the uncalled-for length of evening engagements. This character was somewhat antithetical to his conduct in real life (see David Dilks’ remarkable edited version of Cadogan’s 1938-1945 diaries).
Cadogan’s compelling and sometimes entertaining entries nevertheless required focused attention because the finding aids at the Centre do not highlight theatre attendance. Additionally, until the mid-1940s when Cadogan began to typewrite his daily entries, he wrote in difficult-to-read handwriting, often using nicknames or abbreviations for the same people and these could change over time.
The older diaries have evidence of theatre dance attendance, specifically ballet, but due to their illegibility they require more detailed examination. What stands out is an entry noting his attendance at the splashy re-opening of the Royal Opera House by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet with their version of the Russian Imperial favourite, The Sleeping Beauty in February 1946 (ACAD 1/17). Spearheaded by Lord Keynes just shortly before his untimely death, this event became a celebration of the national spirit during the war. Coinciding with Cadogan’s departure from the Foreign Office, his attendance could be seen as a diplomatic necessity, but his entry highlights his pleasure.
“Ballet, Sleeping Beauty, extremely good […]”
His surprise (and perhaps light embarrassment) at the sartorial choices of other men at the event reveals his underestimating of the event’s importance and future influence.
“Card said ‘Uniform, black tie or lounge suit’. I went in lounge suit. Everyone else, nearly, in white tie!”
It is conceivable that this attention to the ballet was further cultivated by the Powell and Pressburger’s Oscar winning film, The Red Shoes (1948). Cadogan records watching parts of the film with mixed feelings on his 1948 mid-August voyage on the Queen Elizabeth for a visit home. This was followed by an entry at the end of August from Britain indicating he was interested enough to see the film again. This time he saw it in its entirety and with more enthusiasm,
“[…] went to ‘Red Shoes’, of which I saw the whole this time. The beginning and the end ought both to be shortened, but the whole is very good – a better film than I have seen for a long time.”
His typewritten entries for the autumn of 1949 give noticeable attention to the much-anticipated performances of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in New York City in 1949. From their hugely successful premiere on October 9th – again with The Sleeping Beauty – all through their month-long visit, Cadogan records attending an unprecedented six separate performances. His entries are typically Cadogan-esque, tempering praise with blunt analysis. The entry for the premiere is worth noting,
“[…] we got there just before the curtain went up on “Sleeping Beauty”. It was a fine performance and deliriously received. Went on to supper with the Mayor, on the lawn of the Gracie Mansion. Very well done, but he had great luck to bank on such weather in October, with full moon and all! Members of the ballet arrived just as we were leaving about 1:30am and we got introduced to most of them. A most successful evening, without a single speech. What a lesson for Americans! “
Later diary entries suggest Cadogan’s brand of balletomania continued after he returned permanently to Britain, attending Sadler’s Wells performances, almost always slipping in a reference to the excellence of Margot Fonteyn’s dancing as well as showing marked preference for The Sleeping Beauty.
These glimpses into Cadogan’s diaries from the close of the Second World War present the notion that ballet for him was forever after associated with post-war British authority and its ‘conquest’ of America in a way that resisted the global tsunami that was the American century.
This blog was written by Dr Victoria Thoms, Associate Professor at the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) Coventry University. Read more about her work in Treasure Hunting Part 1: Confessions of a Dance Scholar and Treasure Hunting Part 3: The Unexplored Unconscious of the Churchill era.
This blog is part of our ‘50 stories for 50 years’ series to mark the 50th Anniversary of Churchill Archives Centre.